Saudi religious police chief admits extremist presence within own ranks
RIYADH - The head of Saudi Arabia's religious police admitted the presence of extremists within its ranks, labelling them "advocates of sedition" and vowing to remove them, local media reported Tuesday.
Sheikh Abdullatif al-Sheikh's comments come the day after King Abdullah decreed jail terms of up to 20 years for citizens who travel to fight abroad, as the kingdom struggles to deter young Saudis from becoming jihadists.
"There are advocates of sedition within the Commission" for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the local Okaz daily quoted Sheikh as saying.
"We will eliminate whoever urges sedition in this country," he warned, describing calls for jihad as "void".
"It is forbidden to disobey the ruler" by sending young Saudis to join "sedition in neighbouring countries," Sheikh said.
The king's decree, published by state news agency SPA on Monday, stipulates jail terms of between three and twenty years for those belonging to "extremist religious and ideological groups, or those classified as terrorist organisations".
Supporting such groups, adopting their ideology or promoting them "through speech or writing" would also incur prison sentences, the decree added.
Saudi officials have issued increasingly stern warnings against volunteers from the conservative Sunni Muslim kingdom heading to fight alongside the mainly Sunni rebels battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces.
Riyadh set up specialised terrorism courts in 2011 to try dozens of Saudis and foreigners accused of belonging to Al-Qaeda or of being involved in a wave of bloody attacks that swept the country from 2003.
Scores of Saudis are believed to have joined Islamist extremists fighting in Syria. The kingdom has been a key backer of the nearly three-year rebellion against Assad's regime, which is dominated by the Alawite offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Members of the religious police, who are frequently accused of abusing their powers, enforce the kingdom's rule of strict segregation between sexes, and have traditionally forced women to cover from head to toe when in public.
They also make sure shops and businesses are shuttered during prayer times.